Welcome to this week’s edition of Whiskies of the World; the series that teaches you about different nations’ whiskies and how they came to be. In this edition, we’re delving into the world of Japanese Whisky, one of the rising stars in the international spirits market.
The Japanese have been producing whisky commercially since the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that it was exported, and the early 2000s before it was internationally recognized. Today, Japanese whisky is highly regarded for its unique blend of heritage and innovation, resulting in some exciting flavor combinations.
Today, we’ll be learning all about the history of Japanese whisky, what makes it unique in the spirits world, as well as recommending some choice bottles for you to sample. So, tulip glasses at the ready – let’s dive in!
Photo by Sorasak
20 years ago, the mention of Japanese whisky would have likely left non-native connoisseurs with blank faces. But, since the early 2000s, the rise of Japanese whisky outside of Japan has been meteoric. Japanese whisky owes a great deal to Scotch – indeed, as we’ll find out, Scotch is what it was initially modeled on – but, it quickly evolved into own beast, thanks in no small part to its distillers’ innovative production methods.
Produced in Japan since the 1800s, the commercial availability of whisky in the country came much later than in other whisky producing regions. Japan’s whisky boom began in the 1920s, with two whisky distillers at the forefront – Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torri.
Whisky or Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage produced from fermented grain mash often made up for barley, rye, wheat and corn. Whisky is produced worldwide and typically in: Ireland, Scotland, USA, Japan, Canada, Taiwan, India and many others.
The spelling Whisky and Whiskey is used to describe the same spirit but each of different origin. If the spirit is produced in Scotland, Japan or Canada, it is written as whisky. Its its made in the US or Ireland, it is written as whiskey. For simplicity, we will be using whisky in this article.
Why Drink Whisky?
Whisky is the perfect drink. Its made with care and time, it brings out your inner self and like life, should be each with each sip.
How is Whisky Made?
Whisky is made using various grains that are malted (germination process to bring out soluble sugar from the grains to make alcohol), mashed (mixing of the malted grains with pure water), fermented, distilled, and matured (aged in wood barrel). The Malting process activates the enzymes present in the cereal grains to convert complex starches already present in the grains into simpler sugars that can be fermented by yeast. Barley contains a large amount of these enzymes compared to other grains. Malted barley is often combined with other grains when creating a wort (the liquid extracted from mash), because the enzymes produced by the barley will break down the starches in the other grains more efficiently than if those other grains had been malted on their own.
The History Channel in its series, Modern Marvel, has a documentary about Whisky worth watching.
The Whisky remedy for the common cold: a Hot Toddy is a drink made using whisky believed to help fight the common cold back in the days. You can make it with hot water, whisky, herbal tea, honey, lemon juice and sometime spice such as cinnamon.
Different type of Whisky
Fundamentally, whisky has two main distinction; malt and grain whisky. Malt whisky is made from malted barley, while grain whisky is made from different types of grains, typically rye, corn, or wheat. The two are very different in taste, especially by which distillery produced it, and I encourage you to try them both.
Malt Whisky is the first type of whisky, mainly produced in Scotland, it is the traditional and popular type of whisky. It is made entirely from malted barley with usually multiple distillation and aged in matured oak casks. It contains only malted barley as the only grain in the mash bill (which is why enthusiasts consider malt whiskies the purest form of whiskies). Malt whiskies can be blended or single. Single Malt means the bottle is made using malts made in one distillery whereas Blended Malts are a mixture of malted whiskies from different distilleries. While Scotland is the predominant producer of malt whiskies (by law, Scotch whisky needs to be made 100% from Barley), numerous American Whisky distilleries have been coming out with great Single Malt whiskies such as Corsair’s Triple Smoke malt whisky.
An example of a single malt scotch whisky
Grain whisky is everything else. Usually containing wheat, corn, rye and in addition barley. American whiskies (Bourbon, Rye, Tennessee whisky are grain whiskies). Single Grain whisky is grain whisky made in one distillery. Grain whiskies in general are produced for blending purposes at distilleries. It is matured for a short time and cheaper to produce than malt whiskies. A single distillery can produce both Single Malt and Grain whiskies.
Grain whisky from Nikka’s Miyagikyo distillery made using their coffey stills.
What is the big difference between Single vs. Blended Whiskies?
Blended Whisky, as the name implies, is a blend of different whiskies (malt, grain) and from different distilleries (often under the same parent company). Their character are recognized by their different mixture ratio and the origin of the distillery. The term Single often means a single distillery which is not to be confused with a term single batch or a single barrel. For example, a bottle labelled Single Malt Whisky means the product of a single distillery. This single malt whisky can contain whiskies from many barrels produced at XYZ distillery but will only be produced from whiskies at XYZ distillery. Blended whiskies are made up of different single taken from multiple distilleries.
Single Barrel or Single Cask whiskies means each bottle is filled from an individual barrel and will be labelled with the barrel number and date of bottling or age. Small batch whiskies, on the other hand, is a whisky blended from a small number of barrels (usually 10-50) and may have a label indicating which batch was used.
Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey
Bourbon is a type of whiskey produced throughout the United States (it must be produced in the US to be called bourbon). Bourbon whiskies are made of at least 51% corn and a mixture of other grains. Kentucky is predominant producer of bourbon home to numerous distilleries such as Angel’s Envy (one of my favorite), Heaven’s Hill, Maker’s Mark, Corsair, Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve etc.
By U.S. law, a no age bourbon must be aged for at least 4 years in fresh, toasted casks made from American white oak. A finish or extra maturation similar to Scotch whisky is not allowed. If the whiskey is not blended, it may be called ‘straight bourbon’.
Note: we are using the word “whiskey” as we are talking about American Whiskies.
Tennessee Whiskey is American whiskey produced in the state of Tennessee. It has the same mixture and ingredients as bourbon (51%+ corn) but adds a filtration process after the spirit is distilled. The whiskey spirit is filtered through a sugar maple charcoal before it is filled into a cask. This filtering is known as the Lincoln County Process and distinguishes Tennessee Whiskey from Bourbon.
I’m sipping on this bourbon as I write this article. Four roses… as sweet as my heart.
Another North American whisky is Rye whiskey. It is made up of at least 51% rye grains and matured in oak casks for at least 2 years. Two of my favorite rye whiskey is the Angel’s Envy Rye, Pikeville Rye and the WhistlePig Straight Rye. Rye whiskey is usually bolder and spicier with more intense flavor.
What does the whisky age mean? Is the label 10 years mean the bottle has been kept for 10 years?
The age statement in whisky bottles refers to the youngest age of one of the blend of whisky in the bottle. For example, if you have a bottle that says 12 years old, it means the youngest mix is 12 years old mixed with other older blends. Distilleries mix different age blends to reach a particular flavor profile. The exception is when the bottle is labelled single barrel or single cask as it would be not a mix but from the same cask. By law, if there is a age label, every blend in the bottle must be at least that age (that 30 year whisky could contain whiskies older than 30 year old in that bottle).
NAS stands for No Age Statement. Whiskies with NAS have no age labelled on the bottle and getting more popular. The surge in popularity of whiskies has prompted many distilleries to release earlier batches to keep up with rising demand. An example would be the Hibiki Japanese Harmony by Suntory Distillery, the same distillery that makes the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask which in 2015, Jim Murray, author of The Whisky Bible, named the best whisky in the world. After the Yamazaki Sherry Cast was voted as the best in the world, a huge demand for Japanese whiskies took place all over the world. There was not enough aged whiskies to keep up with the demand and the distilleries could not produced any more aged bottles (they can’t go back in time and make more) as there are limited aged supplies. There was no way to predict the sudden rise of demand 10+ years later.
By removing the age statement, whisky distilleries can release more whiskies with more flexibility to meet demand more easily.
I hope this was a good lesson for you all. The next post will be how I got started tasting whisky. Let me know if you have any questions!
My name is Jean-Marc and I've lived all over the world. Throughout my exploration, I gained knowledge and wisdom regarding how successful men behave and their interest. One area spoke to me and I created this blog in the hopes of spreading my knowledge and sharing my world with you all. The world of whiskies, cigars, fine wine and how to be a modern day man.